From the mid-eighties to early nineties, Big Daddy Kane was the undisputed King of Brooklyn, but by 1994 (some may contest even earlier) it was clear that his reign was coming to an end. The mid-nineties would usher in a new wave of emcees influenced by the Kane’s, the Rakim’s and KRS-One’s. A young Queensbridge emcee named Nas would drop what many consider to be the greatest hip-hop album of all-time in Illmatic (to which I concur) and label him the second coming of Rakim. While over in Brooklyn a hungry street hustler named Jay-Z was beginning to find his footing as an emcee and make a legitimate run at Kane’s soon to be vacant Brooklyn throne. 1994 would also see another young and hungry Brooklynite emerge and take aim at becoming the new king of Brooklyn. The Notorious B.I.G. aka Biggie Smalls.
The first time I heard Christopher “Biggie Smalls” Wallace rhyme was on Heavy D’s cipher joint “A Buncha Niggas” from his 1992 Blue Funk album. The world probably first became familiar with Big from his 1993 cameo appearance on Super Cat’s “Dolly My Baby (Remix)” (I still remember Big rockin’ the black and white bandana with the cheap looking black and yellow hockey jersey that had “B.I.G.” plastered on the front of it in the video) rhyming next to Jesse “Third Eye” West and Puff Daddy. Around the same time, Puffy was getting his Bad Boy label off the ground, and while Craig Mack (rip) was the first artist to release a single on Bad Boy, Biggie’s (whose debut single came out two weeks after Mack’s debut single “Flava In Ya Ear”) debut album Ready To Die would come out a week before Mack’s debut Project: Funk Da World, and the rest is history.
Ready To Die would feature production by a host of producers (including the first inception of Puffy’s Production team, The Hitmen), but a large chunk would be handled by the often overlooked and underrated, Easy Mo Bee. The album would go to be a critical and commercial darling (by 1995 the album was 2 times platinum and by April of 2018 it had sold over 6 million units) that many consider to be a classic (The Source would put it in their Top 100 Albums of All Time in 1998), and it would thrust Biggie into superstardom and make him a viable candidate for the new King of Brooklyn, if not all of New York.
Unfortunately, Ready To Die would be the only album released while Biggie was alive, as he would be gunned down in Los Angeles on March 9, 1997, just two weeks before his second album Life After Death would be released. His untimely demise would render both album titles equally ironic and spooky and speak truth to the biblical proverb that life and death are in the power of the tongue.
On a lighter note, Big does shout out A Tribe Called Quest in the album’s liner notes, so you can check off Tribe Degrees of Separation on this one.
Intro – Ready To Die opens with a short intro that quickly goes through four phases of Biggies life: birth, his childhood years, his teen years and finally, him getting out of jail after doing a bid (Biggie actually did spend 9 months behind bars back in 1991 for moving weight). The intro ends with Biggie vowing to the Corrections Officer that he’s never coming back to jail, and the next song begins…
Things Done Changed – The first song of the evening has Biggie comparing how things used to be in the hood to how corrupt they’ve gotten in 1993: “back in the days are parents used to take care of us, look at ’em now, they even fuckin’ scared of us, callin’ the city for help because they can’t maintain, damn, shit done changed”. Dominic Owens and Kevin Scott get credit for the hard and dark instrumental that complements our host’s rhymes, perfectly.
Gimme The Loot – This song has Biggie basically doing a duet with himself, as he and his alter ego (who raps like Biggie from “A Buncha Niggas” from Heavy D’s Blue Funk album) are in thug mode and take turns talking about their ill deeds and what they’ll do to get the money. Normally, this kind of content would come off as sinister, but the animated back and forth between Biggie and um, Biggie, makes it hard to take the two serious. And as much as I love Easy Mo Bee, this sloppy instrumental is also hard to take serious.
Machine Gun Funk – Mo Bee quickly redeems himself from the previous track and lays down this slick mid-tempo funk masterpiece. Biggie sounds right at home and smoothly flows over it like water on the Nile. You can definitely tell Biggie recorded this one later than the first two songs on Ready To Die, as his flow sounds way more polished than the former. This is an overlooked gem and one of my favorite songs on the album.
Warning – This may be one of the most underrated hip-hop songs off all time. Easy Mo Bee provides a beast of an instrumental for Big and he uses it to string together one of the greatest storytelling rhymes of all-time. Right after Mo Bee drops the bomb and it explodes into the tough bass line and hard drums, Biggie keeps the listener intrigued from the jump, as he tries to identify the number coming across on his pager (remember those?): “Who the fuck is this, paging me a 5:46, in the morning, crack of dawnin’, now I’m yawnin’, wipe the cold out my eye, see who’s this pagin’ me, and why”. The plot only gets thicker than Kim Kardashian’s ass from there (but naturally). Big proceeds to spew his warning to the potential jackers and drops one of the most witty bars in hip-hop history (there’s gonna be a lot of slow singin’, and flower bringin’, if my burglar alarm starts ringin'”). This is an undeniable classic and easily in my top 5 Biggie songs of all time.
Ready To Die – The title track finds our host frustrated, violent and ready to leave the planet (and take a few emcees with him), as he spews his demented rhymes over Easy Mo Bee’s murky instrumental. Mo Bee mixes hazy organ chords with an ill guitar loop and muddy drums that set the tone for Big’s dark rhymes. Once again, you can tell by Big’s flow that this was one of the older records on the album (that and the fact that he shouts out “’93” at the end of the song), but it still works.
One More Chance – Over a decent flippage of a loop from Debarge’s classic record “All This Love” (courtesy of the Bad Boy Hitmen: Norman & Digga aka Bluez Brothers, Chucky Thompson and Puffy), Biggie boasts about his sexual prowess, referring to himself as the “pussy crusher, black nasty motherfucka”, while Total sings the hook. This O.G. mix is solid, but has nothing on the monster Rashad Smith produced remix (which is built around another dope Debarge sample) that most casual fans are familiar with. Side note: According to Lil Cease’s interview on N.O.R.E.’s Drink Champs podcast, Nas was supposed to make a cameo on the remix, but was so high he couldn’t deliver a verse. If this is true, can you imagine how much more epic the classic remix would have been? Damn.
#!*@ Me (Interlude) – This short interlude has a woman fake moaning and calling Big some pretty comical names (“fuck me you black Kentucky Fried Chicken eatin’…you chronic smokin’…Oreo cookie eatin’…pickle juice drinkin’…muthafucka”) as he proceeds to stroke her kitty and help her reach the “climax her man can’t make”, while Jodeci’s “Feenin” blasts in the background. It’s mildly amusing the first few listen (or if you haven’t heard it in nearly 25 years), but it doesn’t have much replay value.
The What – Method Man makes the only rap cameo appearance (I’m not counting Biggie’s cheesy “A Buncha Niggas” alter ego that appeared on “Gimmie The Loot”) on Ready To Die, as he and Big tag team the mic over a loopy slightly drunken Easy Mo Bee produced instrumental. Most of you won’t agree with this comment, but this song hasn’t aged well. Feel free to verbally stone me in the comments, folks.
Juicy – This was the lead single from Ready To Die and the song that would introduce most of the world to The Notorious B.I.G. Poke (half of the production duo, Trak Masterz) builds the instrumental around a lazy loop from Mtume’s “Juicy Fruit”, as Biggie rhymes about his rise from rags to riches. Poke’s uncreative loop wound up being genius, as this song is a hip-hop standard that is guaranteed to get the party started during any nineties old school mix.
Everyday Struggle – Biggie uses this one to discuss the struggle and stress that comes with being a street hustler in the hood, and the despair that’s got him ready to check out (” I know how it feel to wake up, fucked up, pockets broke as hell, another rock to sell, people look at you like you’s the user, selling drugs to all the losers, mad Buddah abuser…but they don’t know about your stressed filled day, baby on the way, mad bills to pay, that’s why you drink Tanqueray, you can reminisce, and wish, you wasn’t livin’ so devilish”). The Hitmen build a beautiful upbeat instrumental around a loop of something you might hear in an elevator, and even in its complete contrast to Biggie’s hardcore rhymes, the two blend together in perfect harmony. I love this song, and it sounds just amazing today as it did 25 years ago.
Me & My Bitch – “When I met you I admit, my first thought was a trick, you look so good (uh), I’ll suck on your daddy’s dick”. Who will ever forget these classic, controversial and downright awkward opening lines to this hood love story? The Hitmen slide Biggie a smooth, yet slightly dark, backdrop with a cinematic feel that our host uses to display more of his brilliant story telling skills. Yet another great song on Ready To Die.
Big Poppa – This was the second single from Ready To Die and the song that would thrust The Notorious B.I.G. into superstardom. Chucky Thompson (with a co-production credit going to Puffy) loops up a sample from the Isley Brothers’ classic “Between The Sheets”, as Biggie leans back on it and smoothly spits some old Brooklyn player shit that is guaranteed to keep your head bobbin’. This is an undeniable hip-hop classic.
Respect – Biggie rhymes his bio over a rugged break beat. Jamaican Dancehall singer, Diana King stops by to handle the hook and sprinkles adlibs over Poke’s dusty instrumental. It’s not a great song, but it makes for decent filler material.
Friend Of Mine – I absolutely hate everything about this song. Big’s flow was still in the early developmental stages, the concept and content are corny and Easy Mo Bee’s instrumental is down right terrible.
Unbelievable – Premo laces our host with a blunted mid-tempo instrumental that Big dismantles with ease. This here is some timeless shit.
Suicidal Thoughts – The final track of the evening finds our host rhyming about exactly what the song title suggest. The song opens with Biggie making a phone call to Puffy, who answers and then our host begins his suicidal rant: “When I die, fuck it, I wanna go to hell, cause I’m a piece of shit it ain’t hard to fuckin’ tell, it don’t make sense going to heaven with the goody goodies dressed in white, I like black Timbs and black hoodies”. Ultimately, the song ends with Biggie pulling the trigger on himself. The Lord Finesse produced instrumental is so drab and depressing that it makes me want to do the same.
Ready To Die showcases a young and hungry Brooklyn wordsmith and emcee cutting his teeth on his debut album. There are a few production missteps during Ready To Die, but overall, The Hitmen, Easy Mo Bee and the rest, do a pretty impressive job with the beats. My biggest issue with Ready To Die (other than the blatant biting of Illmatic‘s album cover, which Ghost and Rae would indirectly call Big out for on an Only Built 4 Cuban Linx interlude the following year) is the inconsistency in Biggie’s flow, as it sounds way more chiseled on the songs recorded later compared to the songs that were recorded earlier in the process when he was still working out the kinks in his presentation. All in all, the good far out ways the bad, as Biggie gives us some greats songs and a handful of classics, making Ready To Die a strong debut and one of the standout moments of 1994.